Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron begins with an air raid and ends with wholehearted acceptance of the world as it is, failures, evils, and all. It is a quintessential Studio Ghibli movie, with a young protagonist facing off against a fantastical world while coming to terms with their own complex reality. Miyazaki announced his retirement a decade ago with his meditative The Wind Rises, but the legendary filmmaker has returned, thankfully, to deliver one of his best, most imaginative and mature movies yet.
THE BOY AND THE HERON ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
The film follows Mahito, a boy struggling with the loss of his mother during a round of bombings in Tokyo. His father, an accomplished leader at an aircraft factory, brings him to a countryside estate that was passed down in his mother’s family. There, Mahito’s father begins a union with the boy’s aunt, an attempt at creating stability that only causes more confusion. Mahito struggles with his new home and the new people in it, which is only made worse by a mysterious gray heron that stalks the grounds.
Before long, the mystical elements of the movie make themselves known, and Mahito is led by the heron into an impossible tower, one that gives access to other eras and worlds. Mahito ventures into a bright and colorful underworld, determined to find his mother and restore order in his own life. Along the way, he and his incorrigible heron guide encounter familiar faces and strange foes—including an army of flesh-craving parakeets.
The Boy and the Heron sparks wonder and awe at every turn, intricately animated and warmly told. The whole thing looks incredible, so much attention paid to every drawn detail that the animated world feels remarkably lived in. The film’s score is a standout, filled with echoing, dramatic piano chords that add to the massive and cosmic feel of the story. The conflict is heightened; it’s Mahito and a few allies up against a world that, if not hostile, is not made for its occupants to thrive in. Though the occupants of this strange underworld consist mainly of shadow people and pelicans, their plights mirror our own.
Of course, there is plenty of humor too. Miyazaki creates plenty of physical comedy from his animated animals, with the heron’s eventual anthropomorphization leading to many a giggle-worthy gag. And though the parakeets may be large and fearsome, their affinity for oversized kitchen utensils prompts a laugh every time.
Miyazaki has always had a penchant for animating memorable creatures, and this film is no different—Spirited Away has soot sprites, Princess Mononoke has tree spirits, and The Boy and the Heron has the utterly wonderful warawara. Of all of Studio Ghibli’s beloved little guys, the latter is bound to be a new favorite, from their ingeniously adorable design to their poetic purpose within the film itself.
But enough about the cute stuff—this is still a serious movie with heavy themes. Press notes provided at a screening last week describe The Boy and the Heron as “a semi-autobiographical fantasy about life, death, and creation,” and Miyazaki has crafted a soulful tale of maturing in the face of near-constant grief and strife. This very well could be the 82-year-old director’s last movie, and that reality weighs heavily on his story. While the ending of the film deals in the imaginative abstract that Miyazaki loves to paint his stories in, obscuring things just a bit, it only pulls the viewer in further. Though things feel steeped in metaphor, there’s a decided sense of finality as Mahito chooses the future he wants for himself and his loved ones.
Mahito’s world has so much to explore, to indulge in, to be wary of, but so too do the other lands he comes across on his journey. The Boy and the Heron raises questions about our role in the world, how we all may be doomed to damage it and be damaged by it, but the movie also dares to dream that life might be worth it anyway.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.